Everyone's a Winner: Life in Our Congratulatory Cultureby Joel Best
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Every kindergarten soccer player gets a trophy. Many high schools name dozens of seniors as valedictorians—of the same class. Cars sport bumper stickers that read "USA—Number 1." Prizes proliferate in every corner of American society, and excellence is trumpeted with ratings that range from "Academy Award winner!" to "Best Neighborhood Pizza!" In Everyone’s a Winner, Joel Best— acclaimed author of Damned Lies and Statistics and many other books—shines a bright light on the increasing abundance of status in our society and considers what it all means. With humor and insight, Best argues that status affluence fosters social worlds and, in the process, helps give meaning to life in a large society.
"In this pithy, witty, and wise little book, Best characterizes the college rankings arms race, the new hero, and the self-congratulatory US society. . . . Highly recommended."--Choice
"This is a very entertaining read."--Bookloons Reviews
"We all want a way of getting the best for ourselves, but also solidity and a firmly grounded moral compass. He [Best] raises the interesting possibility that these ends are at least contradictory, and probably incompatible."--Times Higher Education
"An enjoyable introduction to cultural sociology. . . . Enjoyable and easy to read writing style."--Sociological Research Online
“In this pithy, witty, and wise little book, Best characterizes the college rankings arms race, the new hero, and the self-congratulatory US society. . . . Highly recommended.”
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Read an Excerpt
Everyone's a Winner
Life in our Congratulatory Culture
By Joel Best
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
LIFE IN AN ERA OF STATUS ABUNDANCE
I live surrounded by excellence. On a drive to our local shopping center, I find myself behind an SUV with a bumper sticker declaring the driver's pride in being the parent of a middle-school honor roll student. In the parking lot, I wind up next to a car bearing a red, white, and blue magnetic ribbon that says, "U.S.A.–#1." Several of the storefronts in the shopping center sport banners or other signs reporting that the stores have received statewide honors. I live in a small state, and I realize that it must be easier to be designated the "Best__ in Delaware" than it would be elsewhere. Still, these signs tell me that our small shopping center contains a remarkable number of establishments that have been designated as offering outstanding services (our state's best preschool and its best veterinarian) or for selling terrific merchandise (Delaware's best Chinese take-out and burgers). The sandwich shop has a wall covered with framed certificates declaring that it has won various awards for serving the state's best cheesesteaks, hoagies, deli, etc., etc. Before the video store closed, it was filled with DVD boxes identifying movies that had received Oscars, film festival awards, or at the least "two thumbs up." At the newsstand, I can find magazines rating the best colleges, hospitals, high schools, employers, places to live, places to retire, and on and on. The party store features an "Award Center" rack with an array of colored ribbons that can be awarded to a "Good Eater," a "Star Singer," or someone who has turned fifty or is having some other birthday evenly divisible by ten. Back home, when I log onto my computer, my university's home page features today's news items, a large share of which report that some professor or student on our campus has won a prize. And so on. Several times each day, I encounter claims that someone has been designated excellent by somebody else.
The fact that some third party has made these designations is key. If I own a pizza parlor and put up a sign declaring that I bake the best pizzas around, most customers will be skeptical of my self-serving claims. But, if after counting the ballots submitted by their readers, Delaware Today magazine or the Wilmington News Journal newspaper identifies the best pizza in Delaware, that information somehow seems a little more convincing, and a merchant who displays a banner announcing such an award seems to be doing more than just bragging. Somebody else—some third party, whether it's expert judges or just whoever responded to some poll—has vouched for the excellence of this hamburger, that preschool, or whatever.
We pass out praise and superlatives freely. Americans have a global reputation for being full of ourselves. We chant, "U.S.A.—Number One! U.S.A.—Number One!" We confidently describe our country as the world's greatest, its sole superpower. But self-congratulation is far more than a matter of national pride. It is a theme that runs throughout our contemporary society.
The kudos begin early. These days, completing elementary school, kindergarten, even preschool may involve a graduation ceremony, complete with caps and gowns. Many children receive a trophy each time they participate in an organized sports program, beginning with kindergarten soccer or T-ball, so that lots of third graders have already accumulated a dresser-top full of athletic trophies. Many elementary school classrooms anoint a "Student of the Week." Experts justify this praise by arguing that children benefit from encouragement, positive reinforcement, or "warm fuzzies." As the commentator Michael Barone sees it: "From ages six to eighteen Americans live mostly in what I call Soft America—the parts of our country where there is little competition and accountability.... Soft America coddles: our schools, seeking to instill self-esteem, ban tag and dodgeball, and promote just about anyone who shows up."
But children aren't the only beneficiaries of our self-congratulatory culture. Awards, prizes, and honors go to adults—and to companies, communities, and other organizations —in ever-increasing numbers. It is remarkable how much of our news coverage concerns Nobel Prizes, Academy Awards, and other designations of excellence. And, at the end of life, obituaries often highlight the deceased's honors ("Bancroft Dies at 73. Won Oscar, Emmy, Tony"). Congratulatory culture extends nearly from the cradle to the grave.
This isn't how we like to think of ourselves. Michael Barone insists: "From ages eighteen to thirty Americans live mostly in Hard America—the parts of American life subject to competition and accountability.... Hard America plays for keeps: the private sector fires people when profits fall, and the military trains under live fire." The imagined world of Hard America is governed by impersonal market forces, and rewards don't come easily. There is stiff competition, and only the best survive and thrive. This vision begins American history with no-nonsense Puritans whose God expected them to work hard and receive their rewards in heaven. People were to live steady lives and gain the quiet admiration of others for their steadfast characters. Pride was one of the seven deadly sins. In this view, our contemporary readiness to praise—and to celebrate our own (or at least our middle schoolers') accomplishments—seems to be something new.
So what's going on? Why are contemporary Americans so ready to pass out prizes and congratulate one another on their wonderfulness? What are the consequences of this self-congratulatory culture? This book attempts to answer these broad questions by focusing on a few specific, yet telling, developments. It examines the trend toward awarding ever more prizes, as well as our schools' struggles to define excellence. More generally, it looks at changes in the way Americans think about heroism, and at the causes and consequences of our eagerness to rate and rank.
First, however, we need to take a step back. Awards, prizes, and honors are forms of what sociologists call social status, and we need to begin by considering how status works.
The great German sociologist Max Weber argued that societies rank their members along economic, political, and social dimensions. We usually think of economic rankings in terms of class; belonging to a higher class means that you have more money, higher income, or greater wealth than those in lower classes. Similarly, political rankings involve differences in power—the degree to which you can compel others to do what you want them to do. Social rankings, the third dimension, concern status—how much prestige, esteem, respect, or honor one receives from others.
For the most part, social scientists act as though class and power are more important than status. They write far, far more books and articles about class and power—and about race and gender, which also have come to be viewed as key bases for ranking people in our society—than about status. Class, power, race, and gender are treated as serious matters, and each receives extensive coverage even in introductory sociology textbooks. In contrast, status seems to be considered slightly silly, and it attracts far less attention from analysts and textbook authors. For most people, the word "status" brings to mind status symbols—vain people driving fancy cars or wearing ostentatious jewelry in hopes of impressing others. It is easy to dismiss such bling—rappers sporting saucer-sized, bejeweled medallions and the like—as unimportant.
But this ignores the central role status plays in our everyday lives. Oh, most of us may not go around flaunting pricey material goods, but we care—a lot—about whether others respect us. We think it is important to be well regarded. In extreme cases, status can become a matter of life and death. Think of innercity homicides that start with one youth "dissing" (disrespecting) another; or think of duels between high-born gentlemen over points of honor. Those are lethal arguments about status.
But status concerns aren't limited to gangbangers and argumentative aristocrats. Most of us want to be well regarded by other people, and we try to behave in ways that will earn their respect. At least in the short run, there isn't much most of us can do to alter our social class or our power—let alone our race or gender—but we can always bid for more respect, for higher status. When we meet someone for the first time, we try to make a good first impression. When we go on a job interview, we show up clean, well groomed, neatly dressed, and speaking politely. When we say "please" and "thank you," we are demonstrating that we know how to observe the rituals of politeness. All of these efforts to make the best impression are attempts to gain others' respect, little moves in the everyday status games that we all play.
And we are sensitive to how others treat us. Are they according us the proper amount of respect? Or do they somehow convey that they look down on us, that they aren't that favorably impressed? Across time and space, we can find examples of societies where status differences were blatant. Feudal nobles could beat their vassals, and those vassals could not raise a hand in response. In the segregated South, there were countless ways of affirming the gulf in racial status: African-Americans were supposed to step aside, to use polite titles to address whites ("Mr. Strom"), while whites could call blacks by their first names, and so on. From our contemporary vantage point, such imbalanced status rituals strike us as wrong.
Our society operates along more democratic principles. Today's etiquette demands that all people receive a minimum level of courteous treatment, so that under ordinary circumstances we grant everyone some ritual respect. Of course, this hardly means that we all have the same status. Displaying a certain degree of courtesy to everyone is merely one of the most basic moves in the contemporary American status game. As we will see, things quickly get more complex.
American sociologists have tended to conflate status and class. They speak of "socio-economic status" (SES), and much of their research on status concerns occupational prestige (basically surveys used to rank the status of different occupations—studies showing that heart surgeons are looked up to more than bootblacks). In this view, class and status are closely correlated. No wonder that we tend to equate status symbols with expensive material goods; people who have lots of money can afford to spend it on fancy cars and expensive jewelry as way of displaying their wealth.
But there are two problems with conflating status and class. First, we need to realize that status symbols are not limited to expensive trinkets. There are all sorts of nonmaterial status symbols. Parents who correct their children's grammar ("Don't say 'Me and Jim,' say 'Jim and I'") or try to supervise their clothing and grooming choices are teaching status lessons. One's word choices, clothing, and grooming convey information about one's status. There are all sorts of status symbols that don't cost a dime (although they may require consciously learning what to do and how to do it). We can tell a lot about people's social class by listening to them talk (What do they choose to talk about? Which words do they choose? What sort of accent do they have?) or observing them in social situations (How do they behave?). A standard theme in social comedies is the person whose material and nonmaterial status symbols don't tell the same story: the newly rich individual who can afford to live in a mansion but doesn't observe upper-class customs (think The Beverly Hillbillies); or the former aristocrat fallen on hard times who struggles to maintain a proud pose even in debased circumstances (such as the socialite turned soldier in Private Benjamin). Money can buy some status symbols, but not all.
The second problem is that, while social class and occupation certainly involve status, so do aspects of social life far removed from economic life. Max Weber coined another important concept—lifestyle. He recognized that people belonged to all sorts of social groupings, and those groups had their own systems for allocating status and for making status claims. To understand lifestyle, imagine a suburban high school where all of the students come from middle-class homes. Even though a sociologist would classify them as members of the same social class, students within that high school are able to choose their place in the school's social system. Some will become heavily involved in athletics, others in academics, still others in social life, or rebellion, or whatever. That is, within the school setting, the students—who, remember, all come from middle-class families—can come to think of themselves and be considered by others to be very different sorts of people—jocks, nerds, stoners, whatever. Each of these identities comes with a lifestyle; that is, the members of each group tend to favor particular clothing and hairstyles, musical tastes, and patterns for alcohol and drug use, so that it is fairly easy for anyone familiar with the local status symbols to classify individuals into their different lifestyle groups. The distinctions between these categories aren't rigid; some talented athletes are excellent students, and so on. Yet each group assigns respect—status—to its members based on its own criteria for excellence, and everyone knows that the groups enjoy different relative status within the school as a whole.
Adults can choose among far more status groupings, each with its associated lifestyle. Certainly class/money plays a role, but so do other factors—ethnicity, religion, age, education, hobbies, and so on. There are, for instance, lots of different middle-class lifestyles. What—if anything—you read or watch on television, what you eat, how you spend your free time, how you raise your children, and countless other choices reflect, not just your social class, but the particular status groups to which you belong.
Society, then, is composed of many small groups within which members assign and receive status. Sociologists disagree about the best name for these groupings; different terms emphasize different aspects of these groups. Calling them status groups plays up—and arguably exaggerates—the importance of status (the journalist Tom Wolfe coined the term statusspheres, which has the same quality). Another possibility is to speak of subcultures (which emphasizes each group's distinctive culture, its values and beliefs). Other sociologists favor scenes (a term that highlights social geography, the places where different groups congregate), fields (a concept that envisions social spaces where people compete for resources), or tribes or even neo-tribes (terms used to characterize heterogeneous groups that draw members from many different classes). Still another option—the one I prefer—is to speak of these groups as social worlds, a term that reminds us how people can become immersed—live much of their lives—within particular social groups.
Each social world judges its members—that is, assigns them status—according to its own criteria. Often, the members' standards may strike people outside that social world as peculiar. Consider, for example, Civil War reenactors—those folks who wear Confederate or Union uniforms and meet to camp out, drill, and reenact battles. Reenacting is a hobby—something people do for fun—but it is also an elaborate social world that has its own organizations, magazines, websites, merchants, and so forth. In fact, there are significant social divisions within the reenacting world. Because reenactors seek to duplicate something of the past, many of them become concerned with historical authenticity, and over time their standards for what should be considered authentic have risen. Where once reenactors might have purchased outfits made with modern fabrics, the more serious reenactors came to insist on more authentic cloth, assembled in more authentic ways. What might strike outsiders as trivial details—the nature of the buttons used, or the way the buttonholes were sewn—became ways of judging one's commitment to the reenactment project, symbols of status within the reenacting world. Of course, wearing authentic clothing is both more expensive and less comfortable, and the reenacting world has faced tensions between those deeply committed to authenticity (who describe themselves as "hardcore") and those more concerned with enjoying the fun of reenacting than with achieving authenticity (dismissed by the hardcore reenactors as "farbs"). Hardcore reenactors try to distance themselves from farbs, so that what seems at first glance to be a single reenacting world can actually be subdivided into more-or-less distinct hardcore and farb worlds.
Excerpted from Everyone's a Winner by Joel Best. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are saying about this
"In this pithy, witty, and wise little book, Best characterizes the college rankings arms race, the new hero, and the self-congratulatory US society. . . . Highly recommended."Choice
"This is a very entertaining read."Bookloons Reviews
"We all want a way of getting the best for ourselves, but also solidity and a firmly grounded moral compass. He [Best] raises the interesting possibility that these ends are at least contradictory, and probably incompatible."Times Higher Education
"An enjoyable introduction to cultural sociology. . . . Enjoyable and easy to read writing style."Sociological Research Online
Meet the Author
Joel Best is Professor of Sociology at the University of Delaware and the author of Damned Lies and Statistics, More Damned Lies and Statistics, Flavor of the Month, and Stat-Spotting, all from UC Press.
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